As far as I’m concerned, prayer is one of the hardest topics to discuss. Before I begin, let me be clear that I honor wherever you are with prayer, as I’ve probably been there myself. Having said that, I am in a different place with prayer than I’ve ever been before and it is not easy to share because it flies in the face of much of what traditional Christianity has said about prayer. So, this is where I am in my journey with prayer today. If it doesn’t make sense or fit for you, just ignore me.
(For the full video version, click here.)
I have a confession to make… I’ve always wanted to be someone who prays well and diligently, but I’m not. Whenever I’ve been with a family that diligently prays before every meal, I’d inwardly cringe at myself and feel shame that I didn’t institute prayers at mealtime with the family. Nor have I ever said prayers with my kids before bed. Two black marks against the pastor right there.
Professionally I’ve tried to be the praying pastor I was supposed to be. I’ve led hundreds of prayers over the last 20 or so years, participated in prayer vigils, sat in sanctuaries and talked to God, prayed at bedsides, blessed babies, animals, homes, motorcycles, and communion elements. But the traditional form of prayer as supplication or intercession has always felt awkward and not quite right…
I’ve tried, but I’ve had many experiences with prayer over the years that have caused me to question and doubt. Let me share just a few.
At 17 when my mom was dying of breast cancer, I prayed for God to take her, just let her die, because she was in so much pain. She passed away later that day. Because I prayed it, or just because it was time?
At the young age of 24 my then-brother-in-law got very ill and went into respiratory failure. I sat in the waiting room of a hospital praying the rosary out loud with my former Catholic in-laws for Pat to live and be healed. But Pat had severe brain damage and lived the rest of his life, another 20 years, in a basically vegetative state. Was that God keeping him alive because of the prayers? Did we condemn him to that? Or was God not answering? Or was that just how things happened?
Fast forward a number of years when I was asked to lead a small, private prayer service for a young mother who was dying of cancer. I wanted to give her all the support and care that I could, and so of course I agreed. But part of me felt like this was setting her up for disappointment and I felt like a fraud doing it… I didn’t have healing powers, nor a magic wand, and the God I knew wasn’t a magic genie granting wishes. However I hoped and prayed I was wrong, perhaps God could be swayed by words and touch, and a miracle would happen. But she died anyway. Was it because I didn’t have enough faith? Did I fail? As far as I could tell she was a good woman who did everything right…where was God?
Bishop John Shelby Spong tells a story in his book, Why Christianity Should Change or Die, about how his wife Joan was diagnosed with cancer in 1981. It was mostly likely to be fatal. Because he was such a public figure the news spread to all the churches in the diocese, as well as to the media. People everywhere began to pray for her in prayer circles and in worship services. Care and concern and love were given to them through these actions. Remission was achieved for a time and she lived 6 and a half years before she died. As that prolonged remission became evident people began to take credit. “Our prayers are working.” Spong said that despite the gratitude he felt for the caring that people showed, he struggled with their explanations. What if, he wondered to himself, a sanitation working in Newark, NJ, had a wife with the same diagnosis? And because he was not a high-profile person, with a large social network of people, socially prominent or covered by the press, his wife never comes to the public’s attention. Perhaps he’s not religiously oriented, or is quiet about his faith, and her illness never comes to the attention of hundreds of petitions and churches? Would she live a shorter time? Endure more pain? Would God be responsible for this because of God’s capricious nature to only help those well-connected, socially elite, high status folks? Was that the type of behavior he wanted to attribute to God? The answer was “no.”
In Matthew 6:5-15, Jesus instructed the people on how to pray, and a slightly altered version of this prayer has become the standard, go-to prayer for millions of Christians throughout the centuries. But the world, science, and theology have evolved and we’re not those people. For me and perhaps for many of us, the words to this prayer (while familiar and maybe even comfortable) don’t really fit our understanding of God anymore, especially if we’ve moved beyond a theistic God – a being that resides apart from us watching over everything.
The Lord’s Prayer hearkens back to a time when God was male residing in the clouds (heaven) far removed from humanity. This God delighted in hearing how sacred “his” name was, and “he” judged who would be worthy of having their prayers answered based on their sacrificial offerings, their adherence to the religious law, and the quality of their prayers.
Basically, none of these things work for me.
Do I want God to be a magic genie in the sky granting my every wish? Absolutely.
Do I want God to give me preferential treatment for being a pastor ? Heck yes!
Have I found it to work that way? Nope.
Now, the other thing I notice about this passage on prayer, as well as the passage preceding it about charity, and the passage following it about fasting, is that Jesus is very clear that it isn’t about making sure everyone else knows you’re giving, or praying, or fasting. He says all those folks who did those things in public already got their reward… they received recognition and a boost to their ego. But for those of you who aren’t trying to prove how pious you are, but are simply giving out of the goodness of your heart, or praying a simple prayer of connection, or fasting as a spiritual discipline, you will receive an internal reward. Your souls will know a deeper connection to all of life.
Joan Chittester, in her book In the Heart of the Temple, says “When we are young religious, we “say” our prayers. When we get older in the religious life, we “go to prayer.” But when we begin to see prayer as the undergirding of life, the pulse of the universe in the center of the soul, we become a prayer. First, as Gandhi says, we have words and no heart; finally, we grow into a heart without words.”
I believe that the intention of prayer is to connect to the flow of energy we know of as God, the Divine, Ground of Being, Essence, Spirit, Goddess (whatever you want to call it). Jesus seemed to be intimately connected to God on a fairly consistent basis. And that connection manifested in his teaching, his compassion, his love, the way he included and brought hope to the outcast and marginalized, the way he confronted the religious and political powers-that-be in bring freedom from oppression. If prayer is connection with God and we see his connection in all these ways, then prayer is much more than words. Prayer is how we live.
Becoming prayer… being a heart with no words… is about being a living prayer. When we show compassion to another we are connected to God and are a living prayer. When we bring the light of hope and positive thinking into someone’s life, we are connected to God and are a living prayer. When we stand up for the underdog, the bullied, the outcast, the rejected, we experience God and are a living prayer. And when we open ourselves to receiving love, compassion, generosity from others we participate are a living prayer. Perhaps this is what to “Pray without ceasing” means in 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
Spong says, “We are to live as if everything we say and do is a prayer, calling others to life, to love, and to being.”
So, I haven’t stopped praying, instead I’m trying to live prayer… and I’m better at it sometimes than others. Sometimes I fail miserably. Sometimes I’m humbled by the prayer that others live.
Know that I still trust in a mysterious flow in the universe that connects us, and brings what we consider to be synchronicities into our lives. And, yes, I pray for many people, I just do it a little different than may be expected. When I pray I simply open my heart and without words hold others in light and love.
Love & Light!